John Smith Preston: Spokesman for the South

By Andrew Climo

  • Born 1809 in Abingdon, Virginia; later lived in Columbia, South Carolina.
  • Skilled lawyer and orator. Elected in December 1860 to the South Carolina Convention.
  • One of three commissioners to be sent to the Virginia Secession Convention to convince the state to secede and join the Confederacy.
  • A revealing example of how Lower South commissioners connected with residents of the Upper South in an attempt to sway them towards secession.

John Smith Preston was a lawyer and politician who lived as an adult in Columbia, South Carolina. Born in Abingdon, Virginia, he would study law at both the University of Virginia and Harvard law before settling down in South Carolina. There he served for several years for the state senate and was elected as the commissioner of South Carolina after the state had chosen to secede from the United States. Preston was given the task of convincing Virginia to join the Confederacy because of his familial connections with the Old Dominion.

During the Civil War, Preston rose through the ranks of the Confederate army to become a brigadier general, working in Richmond. After the Civil War, John Smith Preston would move to England, then back to South Carolina where he would continue to speak for the views of the Old South. While he was a high­ranking officer during the Civil War, and delivered important speeches after it, the most important and influential moments of his lifetime were during his time as the commissioner to Virginia. This particular speech helped influence the final decision of the Virginia government over what side to take in the Civil War, and helped to bring the southern states together.

Commissioners in the South

Before the start of the Civil War, the states of the Upper South had doubts as to whether or not they should secede. Lower South states such as South Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia had seceded very early on and knew they would need as much support as they could get in order to have a chance in the war that would likely come. This led to the creation of the commissioner, a person from these states who would travel to the states that had not made a full decision yet, like Virginia, and convince them to secede and fight for the South.

By looking at reactions to John Smith Preston’s speech in more detail, this webpage will show that although Preston did not persuade the Convention to vote for secession immediately, he was able to convince Virginians that war was inevitable in 1861 as well as connect Virginia further to the South. Ultimately, he helped solidify the idea that if war broke out, Virginia would pick up arms and join the Confederacy.

The Virginia Secession Convention

Beginning on February 13, 1861, delegates convened at the Virginia Secession Convention where they were to make a decision as to whether or not the state would secede from the Union and join the Confederacy that was quickly forming around them. It was vastly important that delegates at the Virginia Secession Convention who were on the fence be convinced that there was no other option than joining and fighting for the Confederacy. So, the Lower South States chose to send their best and brightest orators in order to complete this monumental task including, Fulton Anderson of Mississippi, Henry Lewis Benning of Georgia, and John Smith Preston of South Carolina.

John Smith Preston was born in the state of Virginia and had relatives who were a part of the Virginia Secession Convention. So he already had greater connections to the group of delegates than the other two commissioners. This meant that Preston’s speech would likely have the greatest impact out of three commissioners. Overall, Preston felt that “his words would not move the convention to action, but he also knew that he and his fellow commissioners had to make the best possible case both for secession and… for the finality of disunion”.[1]

Preston’s Address

All three commissioners were scheduled to speak on February 18th, 1861, but the first two speeches ran so long that Preston’s had to be pushed back until the next day.[2] Throughout his address, Preston spoke about the reasons as to why South Carolina had chosen to secede from the Union, the heinous acts committed against the South by the North, and how the South and North were completely different entities. By portraying ideas such as how the South had allowed Northern abuse, “as long as it was merely a silly fanaticism or a prurient philanthropy that proposed our destruction, we scarcely complained”, John Smith Preston portrayed Virginia’s connection to the South through the issues all Southern states faced from Northern politics. He emphasized the power and prestige that Virginia had possessed at an earlier time in history, and held out the promise that they could be reclaimed.

Preston also examined the differences between the North and the South based on political ideas and economics. By pointing out that the North could entirely survive without slavery, Preston argued that Virginia shared more with the South. Believing that war was inevitable, Preston used his oratory skills to convince Virginia to take the South’s side once the battles began.

Reactions to Preston’s Address

As historian Peter Wallenstein has explained, “Preston brought his audience to their feet in what a diarist called uncontrollable applause”.[3]

By all accounts, Preston’s speech was flawless in everyway. He made connections with the delegates at an emotional level that stirred them to vast amounts of applause and praise. The success of his speech would lead to all three commissioners being invited to re­present their addresses to the general public in Richmond. This was very significant as it allowed Preston to also help convince the public that there was no other option than seceding to join the Confederacy. Preston’s skills as an orator, just as much as his familial connections to the state, explain why he had been chosen as South Carolina’s commissioner to Virginia.

Preston would not change the decision of the Convention in the short term, though, as the delegates of Virginia would vote against secession during the April 4th vote. However, he did ensure that Virginians felt a strong connection to the southern states that they could not ignore when a call to arms was raised. By examining the atrocities brought down on the South by Northern states, Virginia’s former glory, and Virginia’s connections to the southern states, Preston influenced Virginia’s decision to secede after the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops.



[1] Charles B. Dew,  Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2001), 61.

[2] Peter Wallenstein, Cradle of America: A History of Virginia, 2nd ed. (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2014), 190-­191.

[3] Ibid., 191.


Further reading

Preston, John Smith. Address of Hon. John S. Preston, Commissioner of Virginia February 19, 1864. Columbia, S.C.: R.W. Gibbes, 1861.

Dew, Charles B. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

Wallenstein, Peter. Cradle of America: A History of Virginia, 2nd ed. (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2014), 180-­200.


About the project

This page was created as part of an undergraduate research seminar taught in the Virginia Tech History Department by Professor Paul Quigley in Fall 2015. Follow the link to return to the course homepage: The Preston Family: Civil War Experiences.

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